“To come first for someone”

“To come first for someone” October 29, 2012

Another post about questions I got on my speaking tour. One man asked about something a gay friend of his had said, which really resonated with him. I can’t remember, unfortunately, if the friend was citing this as a reason to reject celibacy and seek out a gay relationship, or if he was just saying that this longing makes celibacy especially painful, but he said, “I just want to come first for somebody!”

There are a lot of pieces to this emotion. To be always the one who watches the love between spouses or parents and children, supporting that intense your-needs-first love but never receiving it yourself. Never knowing that there’s somebody who will always take your call. Asking yourself who your emergency contact should be, rather than filling in the name without thinking about it. Feeling like you’re burdening people when you need them–like you’re asking them to do something outrageously above and beyond the call of duty when you ask them to sacrifice time, effort, or their own priorities to care for you, even when you’re really seriously in need.

And I think there are at least four things to say to this poignant longing. Let me move from the most abstract to the most personal.

First, the whole ideal of “coming first” for someone all the time, and marriage as the institution which provides that to the spouses, would sound really weird to 99.99% of people who have ever lived. Going into marriage expecting that now you have found “your person,” who will always be there for you, who will always come first for you and for whom you will always come first, is a setup for intense disappointment and pain. Seriously, imagine describing marriage like this to a woman in any century before the twentieth; I doubt you could find even a handful who’d know what the heck you were talking about.

And not always for bad reasons–often the children will come first. In a Christian marriage, God should always come first, and that has real consequences for how you feel about your spouse’s decisions. There’s a probably apocryphal (attributed to several other saints) story about my confirmation saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in which she blurted out a lie to her husband so she could keep spending their wealth on feeding the poor, and God chose to turn her lie into the truth. Her husband, who in this story later became a deeply devout man himself, came approximately third for her during that time in their marriage: God first, then the poor, and eventually her husband. And this story was part of her legend: part of the lessons her life could teach Christians.

So “coming first for someone” isn’t necessarily something heterosexuals should be asking of their marriages, let alone something we should envy them for. It comes close to the Western mistake of turning marriage into folie a deux.

That said, everybody rightly longs to give and receive sacrificial love–and by “sacrificial love” I mean soup when you’re sick, a compassionate ear when you’re lonely, a shoulder when you cry, a sense that you matter intensely to others. A sense that your needs aren’t hideous intrusions into other people’s lives, but part of the work of love. This is an area where our refusal to honor or even imagine important vocations other than marriage causes a huge amount of pain, loneliness, and sense of worthlessness. If we took friendship seriously as a potential site of devotion and sacrifice, far fewer people would feel neglected and unwanted. If we considered lay community life (“intentional communities”) more seriously, and if we expanded our concept of family and welcomed single people into familial homes (for a season or for life), many more people could have the experience of living in a realistic familial love in which we all come first at times, and nobody is just there as support personnel. People in these vocations would still have problems, since devoted friendship, community, and family aren’t easy, but they’d be better problems.

I do think cultural changes would ease some of the loneliness and uncertainty about one’s worth which I think are embedded in this desire to come first for someone. But it’s important to go beyond cultural criticism. Because we do come first for somebody: We come first for Christ. And there will be times when we need to rely on His love alone. If you’d be ready to work on a marriage, consider working on your relationship with Christ. We are cherished and adored by Him, He will always “take our calls,” and I don’t think I need to tell you that He’s willing to sacrifice for us. The most realistic and practical prescription for cultural change and personal longing for love is always Christ.

And finally, maybe the most important thing to say about this desire to “come first” is simply that I’ve felt it too. It’s been really hard for me sometimes. Other times, like now, I don’t feel it as strongly. But maybe the most important thing I can offer in response to this painful and pretty humbling cry isn’t advice or theology but just solidarity. I feel it too.

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